Fracking: Energy Bonanza or Environmental Debacle? by Wanda Urbanska

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By Wanda Urbanska

When I told my fourteen-year-old son that I was writing my November blog about fracking, he gave me a curious look, as if the word in question was quite possibly obscene.

For the uninitiated, fracking – short for hydraulic fracturing – is highly controversial and much in the news. Hydrofracking is a method of horizontal drilling that taps hitherto inaccessible reserves of natural gas from deep underground deposits through the fracturing of dense shale rock. North America, as it turns out, is blessed (or burdened) with enormous natural gas deposits that if extracted promise to lessen our dependence on Middle Eastern oil and move our nation toward energy self-sufficiency.

Shale drilling sites in North Dakota, Wyoming and Texas are driving economic growth there, running down unemployment and producing enormous quantities of domestic liquid gold daily. Moreover, this natural gas bonanza, according to Time Magazine, promises to “save the lives of thousands of people who would otherwise die from mining coal or breathing its filthy residue.”

While these vast reserves may offer North Americans a much-needed boost from our current economic woes, environmentalists argue that the economic benefits do not outweigh the risks, which range from concerns about drinking water contamination to a possible linkage to seismic activity. If we move at all, critics say, we should avert the stampede toward natural gas by taking a “go-slow” approach.

Hydraulic fracturing works this way: wells are drilled deep into the ground, then enormous quantities of water, mixed with sand and a cocktail of chemicals (including such known carcinogens as benzene and formaldehyde), are injected with pressure to force the natural gas to the surface. One of the biggest problems with the process is that it’s largely unregulated. This is due to the 2005 Bush-Cheney Energy Bill, with its so-called Halliburton loophole, which exempts energy companies from having to divulge the chemicals used during the extraction process. (The bill also stripped the Environmental Protection Agency of critical regulatory oversight.)

Doubtless the greatest environmental concern about the fracking process is in the threat it poses to underwater aquifers and well water in and around drill areas. At a recent summit in North Carolina to discuss whether to allow drilling to reach shale deposits in the state, Duke University Professor Avner Vengosh shared with the audience a study that identified dangerous levels of methane in private water wells near current hydraulic fracturing operations in Pennsylvania. The concentration of methane in the water, Vengosh said, created the potential for explosions in some nearby homes. This frightening scenario vividly played out on camera in the documentary Gasland, when a Colorado man who lives in a fracking zone watches his contaminated drinking water catch fire from the flick of a cigarette lighter.

Fracking advocates have gone to lengths to dismiss this Oscar-nominated documentary as biased and sensationalistic, along with a host of concomitant environmental concerns. Because the potential upside to fracking is so enormous – between a gargantuan energy yield and huge amounts of money on the line – it’s hard to imagine that energy companies will slow the rush to the pump any time soon.

France has put the brakes on the rush to extract natural gas by banning the procedure outright. In the US, the state of New Jersey has imposed a one-year moratorium on the process to wait until further studies are conducted.

Americans should push for greater oversight of the process. And while we’re at it, we should not forget the need to develop alternative renewable energies. Wind and solar power offer the promise of clean energy alternatives that don’t threaten our water quality.

To find out more about fracking in your community, step into your local library and ask your librarian to point you to local resources.

Check out:

Gasland, the documentary expose shown on HBO and PBS.

Quick, animated overview of fracking process.

Making the case for fracking.



Sustainability advocate Wanda Urbanska is author or coauthor of nine books, including The Heart of Simple Living: 7 Paths to a Better Life (Krause: 2010) and the newly published Builders of Hope: A Social Entrepreneur’s Solution for Rebuilding America (Blair: October 2011). 





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